Facebook was ordered by the Indian government to put a pause to its Free Basics plan, which the giant had already started to roll out in the country. The program would see the use of an app that would allow access to a small number of internet services for free, including the company’s own social networking platform. The Indian government’s decision comes after several top internet companies refused to participate in the Free Basics program, citing that such an undertaking would violate net neutrality, the concept that all websites in the world wide web are treated equally.
The mobile operator, Reliance Communications, which had teamed up with Facebook to provide the Free Basics services, was ordered by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to put a hold to the project that has been run successfully in other countries such as Mongolia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Malawi, and the Philippines. It is also reported that over 1 million individuals from India had submitted signatures to the Authority supporting net-neutrality. This may have been one of the factors that led the body to suspend the Free Basics program.
Several objections have been raised by critics against Facebook’s plan to avail basic internet services to the less privileged. The program would put small content providers that choose not to participate at a disadvantage, since consumers would tend to favor service providers that are in collaboration with Facebook on the project.
Some have pointed out that Facebook’s primary aim is to expand their customer base significantly, considering India’s massive population. Others have also noted that Facebook would act as regulators, controlling the content that poor internet users get to see, which has been labeled as “digital apartheid” by the critics. Questions about online privacy have also been raised, arguing that since Facebook will be directing all internet traffic through their partner applications, then they could collect data about their users.
Facebook, on its part, has launched a spirited campaign to defend its plan to avail basic internet service to the poor in India. The multinational has filled numerous billboards supporting Free Basics in India’s largest cities and taken out several two-page newspaper advertisements to support the project. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO and founder, has gotten involved personally in the struggle.
“We know that for every ten people connected to the internet; roughly one is lifted out of poverty,” Zuckerberg wrote in a statement published in the Times of India newspaper. “We know that for India to make progress, more than 1 billion people need to be connected to the internet. What reason is there for denying people free access to vital services for communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and women’s rights? … If we accept that everyone deserves access to the Internet, then we must surely support free basic Internet services.”
The company has also insisted that the aim of the initiative is to give people the taste of what the internet has to offer, noting that 50 percent of users that are initially exposed to the internet through Free Basics switch to the paid full internet access version within a month. On questions about online privacy, Facebook has promised to employ strict data encryption and states that it will not prevent any applications or developers from coming aboard the project as long as they meet the technical specifications.
It will be interesting to see the decision that Indian policy makers will make concerning the Free Basics program. Facebook is aware that the verdict will be a critical one, as it would more likely than not affect how other, smaller countries respond to Zuckerberg’s Free Basics program.